Newborn babies have built-in body awareness ability

November 21, 2013

The ability to differentiate your own body from others is a fundamental skill, critical for humans' ability to interact with their environments and the people in them. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on November 21 provide some of the first evidence that newborn babies enter the world with the essential mechanisms for this kind of body awareness already in place.

In addition to this insight into normal , the researchers stress the importance of the new findings for understanding atypical development, too.

"The identification of these mechanisms at birth in the current study sheds light on the typical trajectory of body awareness across development," says Maria Laura Filippetti of Birkbeck College, University of London. "Our findings may also be relevant to the investigation of early predictors of developmental disorders in infants, such as autism, where an impairment in the discrimination of self/other is believed to be present."

Earlier studies in adults showed that the integration of information from different senses is key to . If an individual watches another person's face being touched as his or her own face is touched in the same way, the perception of self actually shifts to partially incorporate that other face. In the new study, Filippetti and colleagues wanted to go back to the very beginning in investigating that phenomenon by studying newborn babies.

Just as in those earlier adult studies, the researchers presented 20 healthy newborns with a video of another baby's face being touched on the cheek with a soft paintbrush while the newborns' corresponding cheeks were stroked either simultaneously or with a time delay. Of course, the babies couldn't explain what they experienced, but they did show greater interest in looking at the other baby's face when it was stroked synchronously with their own. The babies were less interested when the face was presented to them upside down, making it less relatable to themselves.

The video will load shortly
Credit: Current Biology, Filippetti et al.

The researchers interpret their observations as evidence that babies have the essential ingredients for . When what babies see in relation to their own bodies matches what they feel, they notice just as we adults do. In other words, Filippetti says, newborns are "competent creatures," capable of differentiating themselves from others and of forming a coherent perception of their own bodies.

The findings may help in understanding disorders characterized by a lack of self-awareness, and the researchers call for additional research, particularly in the context of autism.

"For years, research on autism has focused on the impairment in social interactions," Filippetti says. "We believe it will be important for further studies to specifically investigate the perception of the self in this population, as well as the relationship of self to other."

Explore further: Here's looking at you! Psychologist uses new approach to understand infants' patterns of communication

More information: Current Biology, Filippetti et al.: "Body perception in newborns." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.017

Related Stories

Babies know when a cuddle is coming

June 25, 2013

Babies as young as two months know when they are about to be picked up and change their body posture in preparation, according to new research.

Babies know when you're faking

October 16, 2013

If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands! That's easy enough for children to figure out because the emotion matches the movement. But when feelings and reactions don't align, can kids tell there's something wrong? ...

Baby brains are tuned to the specific actions of others

October 30, 2013

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery for adults, but for babies it's their foremost tool for learning. As renowned people-watchers, babies often observe others demonstrate how to do things and then copy those body ...

Recommended for you

Sleep makes relearning faster and longer-lasting

August 22, 2016

Getting some sleep in between study sessions may make it easier to recall what you studied and relearn what you've forgotten, even 6 months later, according to new findings from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Why we fall prey to misinformation

August 23, 2016

Even when we know better, we often rely on inaccurate or misleading information to make future decisions. But why are we so easily influenced by false statements such as "vaccinations cause autism" or "30 million illegal ...

Have we misunderstood post-traumatic stress disorder?

August 22, 2016

In understanding war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, a person's cultural and professional context is just as important as how they cope with witnessing wartime events, which could change the way mental health experts ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.